Interview by Marina Murayama Nir
One evening last summer when Ailbhe and I met up to play music together, in the predictable fashion of our hangouts and friendship, I made a vulnerable confession that I had been struggling to understand the balance generosity and reciprocity in some of my communities. They nodded in recognition, and then passionately exclaimed, “Community is not a one-dimensional, two way exchange. It’s circular!” I’ve held this moment close to my heart because it is reflective of the nourishing nature of our friendship, and because it’s a reminder that generosity is an element that nourishes entire communities.
I’ve been friends with Ailbhe and Jena several years, and know they are the kinds of people who simply show up for others. Their projects, Fikira Bakery and foodeveryonedeserves are all about nourishing communities, and are a huge piece in a web of justice workers and space-makers in Philadelphia. They kicked off 2019 by opening up 1149 Cooperative – a restaurant and community building space in South Philadelphia. They teamed up with Kenisha Sutherland, AKA Chef ThugLife, who currently runs the weekend brunch program in the space. I knew that that this dream team would have valuable insight on our theme of Nourishment!
Congratulations to Ailbhe Pascal, Jena Harris, and Kenisha Sutherland for opening up the beautiful space and entity that is 1149 Cooperative! Thank you for talking with us about nourishment!
Marina Murayama: How are you feeling about the opening of 1149 Cooperative?
Jena Harris: The opening brings on a host of feelings, but mostly joy with a touch of caution, because this is a dream that has been brewing since I began my work as foodeveryonedeserves in 2013. I never imagined all of the people I would meet and get to work with along the way. It brings a smile to my face knowing that I have kept such good company leading up to this time and now there’s a space where those collaborations can continue under one roof.
Ailbhe Pascal: Amazed! I’ve offered up my faith to Abundance, and I’m thrilled and scared. Days that I’m in pain or other scarcity, it’s good to remember that the place I put my energy is fundamentally generative and growing. So many neighbors and friends have been part of this project and now it’s coming to fruition for all of us. When I moved to Philly 7 years ago, I had a dream of one day opening a cafe. It was going to be called the Honeyed Strega. I gave it up because I couldn’t imagine doing the work on my own, and it made room for the work I was doing as Fikira Bakery. But life is cyclical, the dream evolved, and this amazing gathering place is happening.
Kenisha Sutherland: I have been a little bit apprehensive about the opening mainly because of past experiences that I’ve had with other restaurants and their owners and, even working with females in general. I’ve dealt with a lot of different characters and their egos over my career as a chef and now I am around people who truly care about the food that they are offering to others. Seeing firsthand how much work Jena and Al had already laid down for 1149 and how organized they are gave me hope that I made the right decision by reaching out to be a part of the cooperative.
MM: I’m a huge fan of all of you on a personal level, but I also know that people can expect to see you in a wide range of spaces! Where do you like to be? Who else do you collaborate with? I want to know about your history with food justice and organizing!
AP: Such a huge fan of you, too, Marina! Usually, you can find me on a neighborhood farm or at a living room showcase–I love learning from others on that experiential level. More formally, the Art Department and Sable Collective are beautiful, brick-n-mortar, WOC-run arts collectives I look up to. I don’t collaborate directly with these two, but I recognize that 1149 is part of a long tradition in Philly to cooperate for survivance, and these are some of my current heroes. Creative collectivism is possible and necessary.
JH: My focus on community catering began with a volunteer effort to support neighbors who had lost and experienced damage to their homes as the result of a flood (ATX). Since that time the work has grown exponentially and has manifested itself in various ways that has had me working with community organizers, artists as well as grassroots and non-profit organizations. I have a personal event quota that keeps me grounded and focused on my niche of community catering, but I do love to cook for my family/friends at home too. I’d really love to travel and cook in other regions more, that’s something I’ve only gotten to do once when I collaborated with my friend Chef Fresh (Chicago) for the 2015 NOLOSE Conference in Oakland, CA.
KS: In the past I have gone to speak at schools to show students and their parents how to make healthy decisions while on a tight budget, I’ve done a bake sale and donated the money to the No Kid Hungry foundation, and more recently I have been doing cooking demonstrations at a reentry facility in Wilmington, Delaware and teaching their clients where to shop for not only food but kitchen equipment. A great friend of mine by the name of Kyle Sheppard does a lot of work in Delaware with youth mentorship and violence prevention, whenever he has an event going on I’m his go to person for catering.
MM: What were the elements that lead you to want and to be able to open 1149 Cooperative? I know you’ve been working together for a while now with your main digs, Fikira Bakery and FED… Did you see this Cooperative coming for a while?
JH: Collaborating and working collectively is built into both of our project models, however the thought to form a cooperative hadn’t crossed my mind until Al came into the picture. Our first meeting ever lasted almost two hours and in that time we were just listing off all of our food dreams and ideas on how we wanted to reach people with our work at that time we both expressed a desire to have a physical space to do our work and have a kitchen that we could continue to collaborate in and invite folx to be a part of. Being able to open this space comes as a result of direct community support and the relationships/networks we are invested in. We couldn’t have this space without each other.
AP: Philly needs this space! As someone who has rented spaces left and right in this city, I am desperate for a place that offers what we are planning to offer: An ethical community kitchen, arts space, and organizing space, that is also a real (gddm) brick-n-mortar. Jena and I have been collaborating for years and we’re both ready to grow. It’s time to invite people into our working relationship, make more food for more neighbors, and stop running around everywhere.
KS: To piggyback off of Al, life is cyclical. I was in a program that was about helping small businesses open up a brick-and-mortar places on the west side of Wilmington Delaware. In my first draft of a business model, I came up with a place that I was going to call The Diplomat, and that space would be open early enough so school-age children could come in and get a meal before going to the bus stop and even after school they could come in and do their homework and get a meal. It would be a place where people in the neighborhood could come together and have a conversation about what is affecting them. At the first meeting between Jena and Al and I – I honestly felt as though they stole my first business plan and was just reiterating it to me!
MM: How will having a physical space influence what you can do with your work?
AP: Food justice in Philly today can be found on handfuls of rad community farms, and in hundreds of homes across the city, where meetings and one pot meals make big change. These places are vital and part of what makes Philly so vibrant. But many of us have that one gig that needs to be on the Up and Up in order to earn our bread and pay for the work we donate everywhere else. The Up and Up is expensive and rare in Philly, and there’s a demand to have a place to just work. It’s not just about growing what Fikira can do, it’s about sharing this opportunity with the many geniuses and hard working folk who deserve space. And it’s about collaborations! Inviting in new relationships makes all our work stronger.
JH: Having a HQ changes the game completely. We have a place where all of the things can happen, whether it be a meeting to plan an event OR the actual event. The dining room can easily transform into a space for a workshop, a movie, a vendor fair or any number of presentations/events that one could imagine. Having access to a kitchen makes it even better because we can cater an event on site.
KS: Stability is a major thing in anyone’s life and so is consistency. By having this space, I’ll be able to have both of those things with my business for the first time. When I first started doing brunches it was out of a friend’s home on the weekends. It was a lot of fun, but if my friends were going on vacation or just didn’t feel like having company, that means I couldn’t have brunch, and I would lose the interest of my customers. I look forward to going to events and being a vendor and this time when someone asks me if there is a restaurant that they can find me, I can tell them “1149 Cooperative in South Philadelphia!”
MM: How exciting to know that Kenisha Sutherland (Chef ThugLife) is joining your team! Can you let me know about her role? How did you meet and decide to work together? What kinds of light does Kenisha bring in to your world?
JH: I was introduced to Kenisha at El Compadre when we were working an event with Romy Gill. We literally shook hands and then I was heading out to the next thing. Kenisha called me within an hour of my first posting about opening a cooperative space and I remember speaking with her as I was driving to meet Al. Her excitement about the space before we had even formalized anything definitely reinforced that there was a need/desire for this to happen and not just between Al and myself. Kenisha is an excellent cook, a dedicated Auntie in the making and solid human. I’m very happy to have her be a part of this team.
AP: Kenisha is still so new to me. My main association of her company is joy. I appreciate her working rhythm and her laughter. It’s rad to have such an experienced chef be so chill in the kitchen. The three of us catered together for the first time in January and it was gorgeous and smooth: That’s nothing short of magic.
KS: If I wasn’t such a thug I may have shed a tear reading the responses to this question Ha! As Jena stated we had a very brief interaction at El compadre while preparing for an event. I remember Jena asking how I was feeling that day and the question kind of took me off guard because I was not used to a stranger asking such a question. I’m pretty sure by the end of the day we were following each other on Instagram and that is how I found out about El compadre turning into a cooperative restaurant, and the rest is, well I wouldn’t say history, because we’re still in the making.
MM: What does nourishment mean on a personal level to you? What do you think it means on a community level?
AP: Nourishment is generous. Whatever I need to get through today and grow toward tomorrow is nourishing. Sometimes I get that filled-up, energized feeling by accident and I take note. Nourishment can be something I give or receive. It’s essential.
Nourished communities have reciprocal habits. It’s not about one-for-one favors or IOUs- it’s about finding ways to meaningfully show up for each other so that no one person is burnt out and so that everyone has equal access to survivance. Nourishment is so much more than calories or meals, but dang, food is a huge part of surviving! And there is no such thing as food that happened without community.
JH: Personally, nourishment for me is a delicate balance between comfort and need. I love being able to recognize a food, a setting or space and then when engaging with those things having an experience that teaches me something I did not know or think of before. Nourishment isn’t just about satisfaction, it’s also about growth. Nourishment is rooted in familiarity and leads to learning. I feel that applies to the community level as well. We have to connect and get to know each other first and with time and practice we can also grow.
KS: On a personal level, I look at it as setting boundaries that allow myself to be happy and without feeling guilty- whether it’s about what I’m eating, who I’m talking to and spending my time around, what I’m watching, or even what I’m doing with my time by myself. On a community level I look at it as basic needs being met, food, water, and shelter and how those needs are being met–and if they are of the best quality. I think that mental health should be included to the “basic needs” of what needs to be provided to keep a person nourished.
MM: What purpose does the Cooperative serve? How can community members best tap into what you have to offer?
JH: 1149 is a lot of things, and when speaking about it I sometimes spiral out into all of the various activities that could happen there. 1149 is meant to be a multidisciplinary space that people can plug into and utilize for their work, however they see it. It’s a space to incubate ideas–and it does not have to center food. That is just the angle and way I choose to contribute to the world. Community members just have to contact us about their ideas for an event, and then we will work with them to create the space that they need. Our calendar is posted all over the space so that people can see what’s upcoming and what times are open for programming.
AP: 1149 is a much-needed, accessible, formal place to prepare food, AND we are also a place for organizers to meet and do community outreach, artists to display and broadcast their work, medicine makers to stock up and heal, farmers to find support, and for all of us cross-pollinate across the creative sector and grow movements for social justice.
MM: There’s such a history of food, community, and organizing in Philly. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and specifically about the area and space where 1149 Cooperative lives? How do you see yourselves in relation to that history, as people who have been involved for a while, but now have this huge honor to be able to facilitate and program on a whole different level?
AP: We are renters of settler property in Pachsegink Lenapehoking, and have been invested in the rightful stewardship and autonomy of the Lenni Lenape by way of the Sweetwater Split Rock Camp. If I had a car, I’d be there for court dates and celebrations all the time. If you’re nearby and drive, let’s carpool! Farmers in my life who’ve done the work to be guided by Lenape elders are the farmers I support every season.
Philly’s history of organizing with food is rich. We have a tradition of opening homes for radical work, and continues to be: We train each other in radical sanctuary, overdose intervention, survivor support, LGBTQ rights, and so much more in living rooms. Food is always there, an inherent part of the tradition of staying nourished while nourishing others. Being a public home for organizing, 1149 Cooperative has the honor of introducing more neighbors to good work, and introducing more movement folk to each other. In so many ways, Philly raised me, and I feel like I’m helping build another social bridge here.
JH: 1149 is located south of the neighborhood historically referred to as the Italian market, but it is truly home to many undocumented immigrant families (mostly of Central and South American descent). It’s important to me that 1149 connect with those families to identify their needs so that they can thrive and feel supported. We are trying to develop programming that is inclusive of our neighbors both near and far, so that means doing things a bit differently and educating ourselves while we make space to keep our neighbors informed about the resources available to them and their rights as residents of Philadelphia.
MM: What do you most hope for in this year to come? Is any sort of long-term vision starting to take shape?
AP: I’m most excited about setting up a rad farmstand outside the co-op. We’re on the main street of the Italian Market, where there are tons of produce vendors selling veg from far away. The produce is cheap and sold exclusively by immigrant families whom I want to support, but the groceries are of questionable quality. I learned from Karen Washington, a food activist elder, that eating cheap food shouldn’t mean eating “seconds”. I dream of a farm stand where folks can know the food comes from Philly; planted, grown, picked and delivered by POC, femmes, and queers; and can be sold at a wholesale price. This is tied to the apothecary we’re setting up, too. Good food is medicinal.
JH: My hope/goal for this year is to implement a free breakfast program at the space. This has always been something that I have wanted to do with my food work because I really do believe that it shouldn’t be a privilege to have access to healthy/nourishing food. A breakfast program could help people who otherwise wouldn’t have the time/energy/resources get a boost and hopefully have a successful day. Through this I hope to be able to work with those people who participate so that we can create the type of programs for their benefit.
KS: I’m just excited to have a space to put all of my ideas to use that I have thought up over the past 3 to 4 years. As far as this year short-term I’m really looking to grow my clientele and solidifying myself as an entrepreneurial chef.
MM: Any events you’re particularly excited about?
JH: Right now I’m excited about every single thing that is in the calendar for the space and every person that comes to join us for a meal. Lunch service holds a special place in my heart as that was how I came into working at the space when it was El Compadre. I’m also looking forward to getting some music/art shows on our calendar (ahem).
AP: All of Black History / Black Futures Month is going to be stunning. I’m excited to share Vow of Silence, by Be Steadwell, on the 19th–it’s one of my favorite films, and it’s a sweet one to have February feels about. Come to movie night! I’m also really looking forward to the pop up dinner from Our Mothers’ Kitchen that will be in honor of Alice Walker. That’s going to be on the 19th 6:30-8:30, tickets here!
KS: BRUNCH! I always thought that brunch is one of the easiest ways to have creative freedom, you can do anything with breakfast food, lunch food, or a combination of the two so pretty much possibilities are endless as to what a brunch menu can be and and that’s what I intend on bringing.
MM: Who in the Philadelphia food justice world inspires you? Here’s a chance for you to give a shout out to all of your pals!
AP: Life Do Grow is a badass QTPOC farm in North Philly that deserves all the love and support. Sankofa Farm does the educational work that makes a difference. The Urban Tree Connection is a legacy-building, Black, West Philly farm project that makes me believe in growth for real. Mill Creek Farm is part of Urban Tree Connection, and is one of my favorite places to spend time and lend a hand. I miss La Finquita, recently lost to land developers. It was my first neighborhood farm in Philly! Soil Generation brings all of these folks together (and many others) as a Black and Brown -led coalition fighting for our sacred farms. They advocate and educate: Talk about breathtaking.
This list is not exhaustive! Franny Lou’s Porch, Food Not Bombs, + the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative Pantry are all also on the tip of my tongue.
JH: There are so many people/organizations/businesses/farms that I am in awe of and inspired by daily. Philadelphia in general has a great way of showing people how to connect the dots and food justice takes on many shapes and ways. My full list is long, but I will just name three inspirations. Blew Kind of Franny Lou’s Porch is someone who I truly admire and aspire to be more like, she’s doing the work through the cafe in a very intentional way. Cristina Martinez is so complex and truly wears her heart on her sleeve and I am very grateful that I have the opportunity to learn from her and be her neighbor. Soil Generation’s work gives me hope for the future as they take giant steps towards creating an equitable food landscape.
MM: How can the community support you? What resources do you need?
AP: We need folks with bilingual skills in the space, on a volunteer and paid basis. We need organizers coming in and activating our meals with their work, and resting when they need safe space to relax. And we need people coming to us with their brilliance–we have made room for whatever collaboration our Coop can possibly hold, so come, step into that space.
JH: Sharing our story! Our GOFundME fundraiser will be ongoing until we meet our goal and we want people who believe in our work to invest in the space. We want to pay a living wage and also be able to continue to improve the space for ourselves and everyone who we will be sharing it with.
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Marina Murayama Nir is an editor at Culturework.